The complicated ethics of rec runners, PEDs and public shaming

It likely isn’t news to many (or any) of you at this point that Newfoundland’s Dave Freake is presently serving a four-year ban for doping violations.

The violation was not, as Freake previously claimed to the CBC, the result of unintended exposure to a prohibited substance by way of an over-the-counter nasal decongestant. Rather, according to the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, Freake’s May 26, 2019 in-competition urine sample revealed the presence of ephedrine, recombinant EPO, 2-4-dinitrophenol (DNP) and GW501516, better known as Cardarine. He will be ineligible to compete until October 10, 2023.

I know Dave Freake. I raced alongside him frequently throughout the 2016 year (though to use the word “alongside” is, perhaps, to massively overstate my own athletic ability), and got to know him as a fixture at post-race celebrations, from Ottawa Race Weekend to the St. John’s Tely 10.

Freake is a personality in Canadian running: a stalwart of the online running scene who, until recently, chronicled his training and racing on his blog, as well as through multiple social media channels. In person, he has the open, lighthearted affect typical of an East Coaster, though his effusive familiarity is quickly eclipsed by a barely concealed fabulism. In a charitable light, you could call him a fantasist. 

Which makes this news, while surprising, not entirely jarring.

In distance running, the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) at the international level is endemic. Aided by crooked coaches, unscrupulous medical professionals and inept, underfunded or corrupt doping control regimes (CCES not among them), elite athletes who use banned substances are able to compete for years without detection. It’s an unfortunate situation which has given rise to widespread cynicism among athletes and fans alike.

So when an athlete’s use of PEDs is exposed, the temptation to join in a public-shaming pile-on is both visceral and deeply understandable. (I know — I’ve done it.) In a sport dogged by invisible, pervasive corruption, here, finally, is a target for our miasmic anger and frustration.

In this case, I’m going to ask you to take a beat and reconsider that very understandable reaction. Stay with me here.

I’m not suggesting that no level of social sanction in the face of deliberate and likely prolonged cheating is appropriate. I would, however, suggest that perhaps what has been uncovered by Freake’s failed urine test is not so much sinister as it is sad.

In addition to testing positive for EPO, a cancer drug commonly used by endurance athletes looking to cheat, Freake’s sample tested positive for DNP, a metabolic rate-boosting compound once used in diet pills. Clinical use of DNP was discontinued in 1938 because of dangerous, often lethal side effects, including cataracts, skin lesions, nausea, vomiting, seizures and fatal hyperthermia. Despite this, DNP’s continued use as a black market weight loss drug has lead to numerous overdose deaths in recent years, including five deaths in the United Kingdom just last year. Health Canada has not approved any drugs or health products containing DNP and does not consider it safe for human consumption at any dose.

Freake also tested positive for Cardarine (sometimes called Endurobol), a pharmaceutical compound first developed in the 1990s, which was abandoned in 2007 after clinical trials showed that the drug lead to rapidly developing cancers in mice and rats. For obvious ethical reasons, there have been no clinical studies on the long-term use and effects of Cardarine in humans.

In other words, Freake — an ostensibly healthy athlete in the prime of his life — was effectively playing Russian roulette, taking dangerous banned substances of dubious benefit to an endurance athlete in pursuit of a handful of minor podium finishes and some free Brooks running gear. The level of disordered reasoning that goes into taking such an extraordinary risk for such a low-stakes return is, above anything else, tragic, and warrants our concern far more than it warrants our scorn.

There are cases that provide us a glimpse into systemic doping practices or pervasive cultures of unethical behaviour within a sports community; I don’t believe this is one of them. Catching a runner at Freake’s level — in the liminal space between an elite international athlete and dedicated rec runner — was an unusual event, but it wasn’t random. Paul Melia, CEO of CCES, told the CBC as much earlier this week, saying that the decision to test Freake was “not completely random, but we don’t get into publicly discussing the different variables that we use to decide the testing.”

To read between the lines: it was a tip-off that lead the CCES to collect an in-competition sample from Freake following the 2019 Ottawa Marathon (a race he notably did not finish). His ban serves as evidence not of a culture of dishonestly in Canadian amateur sport, but of the community’s unwillingness to tolerate such behaviour, even in an athlete of little consequence on the national racing scene.

I write this not as a defence of Freake — he knowingly broke the rules and deserves the ban — but rather, as a defence of the soul of this community. In a sport rife with corruption and cheating, the public pile-on has its place, but this isn’t it. We can have a conversation about doping — even doping at the amateur level — that retains some semblance of caution, reflection, and a sense that perhaps the offending party in some cases might not have the wherewithal to withstand the full brunt of the running community’s online ire. 

Doubtless, Freake’s performances while doping have robbed clean athletes of wins and podium finishes that might have otherwise been the high-points of their amateur careers; for how long this has been the case, we don’t know. Weighing the question of what is a fitting punishment for this transgression, I’ve asked myself what these moments in my own running career are worth to me. How much do I value that first-place finish in my hometown half? What would it mean to have that moment stolen? Is it worth the health, well-being and sanity of a human being in crisis?